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The Rise of the Supertemp
By Jody Greenstone Miller and Matt Miller
Featured in the Harvard Business Review
Ed Trevisani hangs with his young sons when they come home from school. He volunteers as a Boy Scout leader, serves on nonprofit boards, and teaches management at Philadelphia-area universities. He’s even been known to sit on the back porch in the middle of the workday. Not bad for a guy who’s still pulling down as much as he did when he was a partner with IBM and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Trevisani is a Wharton MBA and GE alum who now manages high-powered projects for Fortune 500 companies and advises executives on operational issues, change management, and potential mergers. He does all these assignments on a temporary basis, working as an independent contractor.
Let’s call Trevisani a supertemp. He and others like him belong to the “free agent nation” popularized a decade ago by the author and workplace guru Daniel Pink, but they inhabit its most rarefied precincts. Supertemps are top managers and professionals—from lawyers to CFOs to consultants—who’ve been trained at top schools and companies and choose to pursue project-based careers independent of any major firm. They’re increasingly trusted by corporations to do mission-critical work that in the past would have been done by permanent employees or established outside firms. New intermediaries have sprung up to create a market for such marquee talent. Supertemps are growing in number, and we think they’re on the verge of changing how business works.
Most supertemps are refugees from big corporations and law and consulting firms who value the autonomy and flexibility of temporary or project-based work and find that the compensation is comparable to what they earned in full-time jobs—sometimes even better. They leave behind the endless internal meetings and corporate politics, which Trevisani reckons took 30% to 40% of his time back in the day. Now, a decade into the independent life, he digs deep into challenging assignments that exercise his talents—serving as interim CEO for an international trading company, developing an M&A strategy for a global manufacturer, leading the IT selection process for a global insurance company—and devotes just a little time to the administrative side of running his own show. “I’m independent because it’s fun and I’m able to help executives succeed at what they do,” he says. That he can decide to take two months off to reconnect or travel with his family is gravy.
Because the prevailing media and corporate cultures have been largely blind to what’s happening to high-end work, we don’t hear much about the Ed Trevisanis of the world. Instead we’re assaulted by images of the opposite—think of Newsweek’s 2011 cover story about “beached white males” whose Ivy League degrees and gold-plated résumés couldn’t win them permanent roles in the aftermath of the recession—or by hand-wringing headlines about the rise of “permatemps,” who skate along from one low-paying contract assignment to the next. To be sure, corporate America’s increased use of contract and contingent labor can make it hard for workers on the lower rungs of the employment ladder to earn a decent living. But in the upper echelons, any stigma on temporary jobs—and on the people who choose them—is almost laughably dated.
We should declare right here that we are hardly unbiased observers of this phenomenon. Jody is the CEO of Business Talent Group, a firm she launched five years ago to bring executives and professionals to companies for consulting and temporary work. (Trevisani and several others quoted in this article have worked with BTG.) Matt is typical of the independent professionals in BTG’s talent pool—a consultant turned columnist, author, and radio host who for a decade has earned the bulk of his income from project-based consulting work. Our unique angle of vision convinces us that traditional models of work are being upended by a convergence of the emerging desires of top professionals and the evolving needs of 21st-century organizations. When the dust clears, the way people think about elite careers, the corporation, and the economy will never again be quite the same.
What’s Behind the Shift
The forces driving this convergence are as impersonal as the Great Recession and as individual as a dream. For the talent, project-based work has simply become more attractive than the alternative. Today technology makes it easy to plug in, the corporate social contract guaranteeing job security and plush benefits is dead or dying, and 80-hour weeks are all too common in high-powered full-time jobs. The surprise may be not that top talent is looking for “permanent temp work” but that anyone who has a choice would want a traditional job.
Companies follow the talent. So as growing numbers of professionals decide that they prefer to work on a temporary basis, organizations are finding ways to work with them. The prevalence of lean management teams, the postrecession drive to cap costs, and the accelerating pace of change combine to make temporary solutions compelling. These new arrangements have also spread because the surge in outsourcing and consulting in recent years has accustomed managers to thinking about work, including high-end work, in modular ways. In a global business climate that’s perpetually ambiguous—and that puts a premium on companies’ ability to test ideas and change course on a dime—knowing how best to engage this lower-risk, flexible, and faster talent model can be a source of competitive advantage.